Look out, mountain bikers: A pedal sparked a 122-acre wildfire

While Smokey Bear often warns the public of the dangers of campfires and matches in starting wildfires, maybe he needs to add mountain bikes to the list: On Wednesday, the United States Forest Service announced that a 122-acre wildfire that occurred earlier this month in California was caused by a mountain bike pedal.

As noted in the Facebook post, the fire originated from the popular Lower Rock Creek mountain biking trail, and investigators found conclusive evidence that the 122-acre blaze that occurred on Aug. 5 just southeast of Mammoth Lakes was started by a bike pedal.

According to Inyo National Forest fire prevention technician Kirstie Butler, in order to come to that conclusion they had to study a variety of factors.

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“All the holes in the Swiss cheese lined up perfectly,” Butler told Bike Radar of the evidence pointing to a mountain bike pedal being the cause of ignition.

wildfire mountain bike

Officials say a perfect storm of factors went into causing the wildfire. (Note: This isn’t the Rock Creek Fire). Photo: Courtesy of Andre Bessa/Flickr

Butler and others traced the source of the fire to a single rock on a trail surrounded by cheatgrass. Cheatgrass grows back quickly after fires and dries in the summer, making it a major fuel source for wildfires.

Observing marks on the rock and bits of metal near the rock indicated to Butler and her team that a spark from a pedal strike started the blaze.

“It really doesn't take much for cheatgrass to ignite,” Butler continued to Bike Radar. “Anything could start a fire in conditions like this. It would have been like striking a flint."

“I’ve never heard of anything like that happening,” Brice Minnigh, editor-in-chief of BIKE, told GrindTV.

While mountain bikers, particularly those in the Western United States, often tend to ride in areas commonly affected by droughts and wildfires, Minnigh says the threat of a wildfire isn’t ever considered while pedaling.

“No, it’s never at the forefront of my mind, even at the height of the drought or summer,” said Minnigh. “We’ve ridden in areas where every summer there seems to be more and more wildfires, but it never has too much of an effect on mountain bikers.

“The worst example of that, I guess, was four summers ago in Idaho when they had massive fires in all of the woods out there in the Hailey/Ketchum area,” Minnigh said. “You could barely see the sun there was so much smoke, but we still rode every day.”

mountain bike wildfire

Minnigh says in all his years of mountain biking he has never heard of a bike pedal starting a wildfire. Photo: Courtesy of Anthony Smith/BIKE

Still, Minnigh isn’t discounting the very real danger of wildfires.

“People don’t realize how quickly they spread. My old man used to fight fires in Oregon and Idaho,” Minnigh said. “It’s crazy how fast they spread; the flames leap from the top of one tree to the next. They don’t creep up on you; they jump on you.”

This isn’t the first instance of a recreational activity causing a wildfire in California: In 2010, an errant swing from a golfer on a course in Irvine sparked a 12-acre blaze.

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